It's easy to pick on Sex and the City. The lasting memory of the show is, unfortunately, the 2010 movie sequel which distilled the silly worst of the television series. But in a new piece for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum defends the show against its haters and explains how it was just as important a television landmark as The Sopranos.
Nussbaum's impetus for writing the piece was Brett Martin's book Difficult Men, which she describes as a "a deeply reported and dishy account of just how your prestige-cable sausage is made." But while the show features The Sopranos and The Wire in its subtitle, it glosses over Sex and the City in detailing the rise of HBO.
Sex and the City is taken for granted. As Nussbaum herself reported for New York when Girls was about to come out "it was practically a mantra on set that Girls is not the new Sex and the City." And as, Richard Lawson wrote back in February, those who watched The CW's SATC prequel The Carrie Diaries and expected the worst were surprisingly charmed. (News broke this weekend that the prequel has cast their Samantha Jones.)
So as the adventures of Carrie and the girls seems to be more lampooned than revered, and Nussbaum asks the question: "why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind?" (Just google "sex and the city feminist" for some of those opinions.) She answers: "It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior." For Nussbaum the show is much more complicated:
Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. As I’ve written elsewhere—and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties—the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to glide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.
The piece is definitely worth a read in full, and we should remember to think of Carrie along with Tony.